Refilling the Well: On Getting through Writer’s Block
June 11, 2015 § 13 Comments
When I was 30 I got a job mentoring public school students. Once a month I was supposed to choose a “Great Story” from my work experience and write it up for my boss, who would send it to his boss and on up the line in order to show that we were doing good things with our grant dollars. I had taught college writing for the previous seven years and have a master’s degree in fiction writing, so the expectation was that I would turn in the best and brightest great stories each month.
I didn’t write the best stories–my experiences were great, but my writing had the bland, brittle flavor of a saltine. Each of my essays was a series of short declarative sentences that summed up events and emotions as though it was a police report. In one staff meeting, my boss lauded a colleague’s colorful prose, commented on the value of a liberal arts education, then looked at me uncomfortably.
My most productive time as a writer was college. I had to write every day. If I didn’t I couldn’t sleep. I’d lie awake cursing myself for not sleeping, counting the hours until I needed to be awake until I gave in, booted up my computer, and let the words flow until I was able to melt into the pillow, completely at rest. I had stories I had to tell, and my body wouldn’t let me rest until I did.
Eight years transpired between my writerly insomnia and my struggle to spit a few sentences onto the page for a work assignment. In the interim, I’d been a not-so-productive MFA student and a writing instructor who drafted one story and one essay in three years. At any time during that era, I’d definitely have qualified for a diagnosis of writer’s block and strong scolding. “Just do it” or “If you really have to be a writer, you will be” are the most common tough-love admonitions for “blocked” writers. For me, tough love was not the solution. I’d taken the advice to “just do it” and I always hated whatever I forced myself to write.
It takes more than free time and discipline to write well. Good writing requires wit and emotional strength. I always understood writer’s block as having the desire to write but no ideas, or having ideas but no discipline to sit and write. No ideas is frustrating, but usually comes to an end. Inability to sit and write, for me, was a form of fear. Fear of not knowing where the story would go or if it would be good, and, more importantly, fear of the emotional depths that the writing would take me to. When we write we live each character’s life. It takes a firm foundation to go to those depths. As a college student, my foundation was as strong as could be. I was a privileged young woman with supportive, high-quality teachers. My parents paid the rent and tuition.
In the last months of my MFA program, anxiety about the future ruled my sleep. I would wake up and find the front door open, or that my shirt was inside out and backwards. That June, my mother had emergency surgery to remove a tumor and spent two weeks in the hospital fighting off infections. For almost four years, she tried chemotherapy and radiation treatments. I made her my first priority in life.
Months into the first round of chemo, I imagined a scene: two sisters climbing a mountain until they came to an orange tree with unusually large, bright fruit. When the fruit fell to the ground, it rotted immediately. When picked directly off the tree, it was perfectly delicious. This, I decided, was the seed of my new novel. I decided to move the scene from a mountain to my current location, eastern Indiana. I told friends about it. I was so excited to get started. But I never did. I wrote few pages of description and thought through the characters and their lives, but I didn’t do the sustained writing that’s required for completing a novel. What I did write during that time: a short story about a young woman living alone in a new town whose mother (a ghost) has come to live with her. It was me imagining my future life. I also participated in a non-fiction exercise with my students, writing an essay based on a list. Mine was a list of all the people who’d died in my life and all the ways my mother had influenced my experience of those deaths.
That’s it. For four years. I wanted desperately to write, beat up on myself for not writing, was humiliated by my lack of output while friends and peers celebrated fresh drafts and publications. That should be the definition of writers block, but it was something other than laziness or plain fear. I simply had nothing to give. I was, during that time, emotionally and physically exhausted. I was an empty husk. I did not go forth into fictions from a secure place. My life was plagued by fear and uncertainty. I felt no impulse to bring more of those things into my life via writing
I kept a journal of my insane dreams. I revised a story I’d written in grad school. None of these projects had the delicious “weight off my shoulders” feeling I’d always had after writing a fresh draft. My best moment came one Friday night alone in my apartment, when I sat on the couch with my laptop. For the first time in years, I wrote new fiction: a pivotal scene in the novel, when the protagonist hears a fall festival storyteller’s tale that leads her to believe she’s cursed. I held that moment and that scene in the back of my mind through the last months of my mother’s life. It was a tiny shred of evidence that I could write again someday.
My experiences in the elementary school and my mother’s death combined into material that I could only address from a non-fiction perspective. I hand wrote on legal pads, more pages of simple declarative sentences piled up on each other like bricks. A dear friend encouraged me to email her a paragraph a day of writing, and wrote back that she was moved, that they were beautiful. I bought a house and began to reestablish the sense of security I’d always found necessary for writing. Eventually I eased myself back into fiction by dabbling in a genre I’d never read much of. I saw it as a folly. It was fun. It got the proper muscles working again and gave me confidence.
I’m still not back to the can’t-sleep-if-I-haven’t-written level of writing practice, but I’ve written pieces to conclusion, published them, and received positive feedback. It is surreal after all those years of feeling writing was lost from my life. I will never again judge or wonder at a writer who has hit a fallow patch, or chosen to focus on another priority. We need a full inner well to write from. Sometimes life empties the well. That’s not failure, or the end. It’s a promise that there will be something new to write about when the well is refilled.
Rachel J. Mack is a fiction writer with an MFA from the University of Alabama. She’s recently published essays with The Billfold and Rappahannock Review.